There’s that moment when you try a better beer, a beer that’s not your average Coors/Bud/Pabst, and you’re hooked. Not everyone may remember exactly where, or when. You may not even remember what beer it was. But much like a 1-year old who tries his first bite of birthday cake and has his first real taste of sugar, you know you’re never going back to that other beer again.
Craft beer was barely a term 30 years ago; since then, the phrase has been uttered by everyone from beer aficionados to the average Joe. Everyone’s talking about it, and everyone wants in on it. (We're looking at you, Budweiser Black Crown.) And everyone has a favorite.
We couldn’t have found more variation when we began to survey our craft beer experts and readers about who they think deserves to be called the "best" craft brewery in America. We asked some of the country’s leading craft beer experts (can we have that job?) for their suggestions of which breweries they thought were among the best in the country. Their nominations included breweries of all sizes, regions, and styles. After all, narrowing down a list of 2,538-plus breweries (the latest numbers from the Brewer's Association) to a mere top three nominations is no easy feat. After we picked through the 72 nominees we received, we put the vote to you, the readers. Thanks to you and the support of these outstanding 72 nominees — who cast more than 11,500 votes — we got our list of the best craft breweries in America.
Granted, as we mulled over our top picks, there was one clear theme — there’s a difference between what’s called "the best," and those that are "beloved." After all, there’s plenty of subjectiveness in picking a craft beer you know you should love, and one you should try. As an editor who’s often tasked to try new craft brews (rough job, I know), there are plenty of times that I end up ordering my standard brew when out at a bar — not because it’s the best beer on tap, but because I know I’ll like it, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.
But as we talked with our experts and readers about these breweries, we found that there is an intersection of best and beloved. These are the breweries that produced a better product, and then found their fan base (and judging by our responses, these breweries sure have some fan girls and boys). As Tristan Chan, co-founder of the craft beer enthusiast website Porch Drinking noted, there’s much to consider when narrowing down the great craft breweries from the pack: solid flagship beers, interesting new styles and seasonal beers, as well as the business of design, marketing, and fan base-building. "It’s still kind of subjective," he says. "But the breweries that are really successful and thriving have incorporated a lot of those elements" into their business.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about this list, however, is the small amount of beer that these 25 craft breweries produce in the "beerscape" of America. Let's break down the math: hot off the presses from the Brewer's Association, the 2013 stats show that 7.3 million barrels of beer were sold by independent and small craft brewers during the first half of the year, up from 6.4 million barrels in 2012. Sounds like a big number, right? But in comparison to the total amount of beer sold in the U.S., from brewers large and small, craft beer is still a small piece of the beer market. In 2012, a staggering 141.4 million barrels were sold from all brewers. Six million compared to 141 million? That's just a bite of the pie. One of these breweries in our top 25 ranks number five on the best-selling breweries of 2012 list, after Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Pabst Brewing Co., and D. G. Yuengling and Son Inc. That number five brewery (we won’t tell you who!), arguably the biggest craft brewery in the U.S., capitalizes on just 1 percent of the overall beer market.
Do we find it discouraging to see the Davids of the beer world struggling to overtake the Goliaths? Hardly. While we may never escape the Bud Light and Coors Light taps at the bar, we’re finding new small-production craft breweries every year that challenge the normal. That means new beer styles, well-above-average flagship beers, and a dedication to the craft of making beer. And hey, whoever said bigger is better hasn’t tried a craft beer from the "little guys" of beer. The craft beer movement "has forced breweries to step up," says Chan. "The public is taking hold of this movement — I don’t think we’re anywhere near oversaturation." "Craft beer doesn’t get enough credit for the innovation and reinvention brewers are displaying every day," says Tom Rotunno," senior editor for CNBC TV and beer blogger for CNBC.com. "It’s impossible to be bored."
We’re excited to toast the craft breweries that are changing the way we enjoy a cold one — the ones both the experts and readers agree deserve to be recognized. After all, as Chan noted, no one gets into the craft brewing business for the money. Despite the long hours, the grueling work, and the task of starting a business from the ground up, these guys do it to make you a better beer. And for that, we can’t thank them enough.
Not seeing your favorite brewery on the list? Tell us your favorites. "This is one of the best times to be a beer drinker," Rotunno says. "As this contest shows, while it’s fun to discuss, it’s impossible to choose 'the best brewery in the U.S,' and the best part is consumers never have to make that choice. No matter where you live in the U.S. there are great local craft beers to choose from."
With research and reporting from Madeline Monaco, Kristin Salaky, and Emily Sundberg